I love Christmas! It isn’t so much the gift giving as it is the joy and coming together of families. I once published a Marvel Newsletter each month for my husband’s family. As a Christmas surprise to them I did extensive research as a surprise and my Christmas gift to them. It went as follows:
The old eight-day clock on the familiar old mantle had been ticking for years. The family Christmas tree had been chopped down the previous week. It was usually an evergreen with homemade ornaments of pinecones and strung popcorn.
Snow had fallen the evening before and there were delicious aromas coming from the Marvel kitchen. The Christmas dinner served was usually a nice chicken dinner with mince meat and pumpkin pies. It was cold outside and the old pot belly stove was keeping the Marvel kitchen warm. It was Christmas Day! Grandma Amy usually made sure the Marvels had a wonderful Christmas Day. Gifts were usually essentials such as gloves, nighties, and handkerchiefs. The Marvel men took pride in the Christmas Day hunting, usually bring home the rabbits and quail from their hunt. The Marvel household always had lots of people stop by daily, but Christmas was special to them.
A Traditional French Christmas
The Marvels of Normandy, France
The traditional Christmas in French custom were slightly different than American Christmases. Santa Claus is an American tradition. The name came from a misunderstanding of the Dutch words “Sint Niklaas” (Saint Nicholas). In France, the man who brings gifts to children is “Le Pere Noel” (Father Christmas). Instead of being fat and jolly, he is tall and thin; he wears a long robe, has a red cowl or peaked hood attached to it.
Christmas stockings were used for children, but were not “hung by the chimney”…Their stockings were attached to the foot of the bed.
Glazed chestnuts are a feature of the season. Also there is a traditional cake that is quite spectacular; the “Buche de Noel” (Yule Log Cake). It is made by baking a cake batter in a large flat pan, so the cake comes out as a very thin layer. This is covered with chocolate frosting, then rolled up into a log shape; then more frosting, then rolled up into a log shape; then more frosting all over the outside; the outer frosting is grooved with a fork to make it resemble tree bark. It can be decorated with bits of meringue which have been shaped into mushrooms and baked until firm. Real fancy cooks can even attach a smaller piece of rolled cake to resemble a branch. When sliced, the inside frosting makes the cake look like it has tree rings.
There are three very well known French carols. They are “Um Flambeau, Jeannette Isabelle” (Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabelle); “il Est Ne, Le Divin Enfant” (He is Born, the Divine Christ-Child); and “Minuit, Chretiens” (O’ Holy Night).
The French were not so much into Christmas trees. They do put up a Nativity scene (“Creche”) and the churches do quite elaborate ones, to the extent that families go around and visit the churches to see them. In Provence, a local folk art has become an important art form; extra figures in a creche scene are made of clay or carved of wood, and range from the cheap to the collector’s item, and in size from tiny to large puppet size. These figures represent medieval peasant occupations, such as woodseller, fishmonger, carpenter, etc. They are called “santons” (Provencal for “little saints”).
Midnight mass is often attended by French families. Even if your family is not Catholic or not religious, it can be quite beautiful if done in a beautiful church.
After New Year’s, there is another tradition. In Provence it is called “Le Gateau des Rois” (the cake of the Kings) and has to do with the visit of Wise Men (Epiphany, the second Sunday in January). The cake resembles a bundt cake, as it is in the shape of a ring (a king’s crown, so to speak). Inside the cake is hidden a fava bean or a tiny porcelain item called “la feve”. The person who gets the slice containing “le feve” becomes king or queen for a day. In the northern part of France, the cake is made of puff pastry and is flat instead of crown shaped, and is called “Galette des Rois” and is sold in bakeries with a gold cardboard crown.
Many thanks to Barbara L. Hill of Berkley University for her help in supplying information for our Marvel French Christmas Tradition. She spent a school year in France many years ago and supplied this information for our family.